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Art in the Library

What can art do for the library? Why does an archive need art? One of the answers is: libraries and archives are often perceived as public spaces, and art as the universal language that is the perfect tool to broadcast ideas and ignite discourses and engagement in those spaces.

Yet, libraries and public archives constitute a special case of public spaces, where liminality is exchanged for slowing down, and interaction with the environment is traded for contemplation. How does it change the nature of art found in libraries, and what is this art focused on?

In the digital era, when knowledge is available from the comfort of our homes, libraries and archives have become more than just places to store books and documents. Studies reveal that up to 60% of visitors to North-European libraries do not borrow books during their visits, and instead come for cultural activities, community events, or simply to socialise. Libraries’ public nature serves as a great environment for socialisation, where strangers from different professional, social, and cultural backgrounds may collide. For this diverse crowd, the library offers many communication starters: over a book, a poster, and an exhibition. Such a unique environment serves as a great platform for art projects – many libraries treat art as an important part of their agenda, and as a means of broadcasting ideas to a wide and diverse audience.

With public access and education at the core of its PRE philosophy, Archivorum’s mission is entwined with art and community. As a physical space, it will host archives and artistic works of various artists and media. While we are preparing for the opening of the Archivorum building, let us take a look at some art from archives and libraries around the world.

Studying the art that found its way to our libraries and archives is an extensive but compelling task. Art tends to acquire characteristics of the mundane that are most precious to us. In the same way, library- or archive-based art can steer us towards what we value most in these types of spaces – a highly sought-after insight in an era where technology questions the very existence of such places.

The library’s slow and contemplative environment became the focus of American artist Peter Erskine. Erskine pays attention to the nature of time in libraries, and to its most basic measure: the movement of the sun itself. In his series of works for Californian libraries, Erskine uses the sunlight streaming through the libraries’ windows, refracting it with laser-cut prisms, and painting the space in ever changing rainbows.

Sun Painting, 2009, Peter Erskine.

Erskine’s interventions took place in California in the 1990s, into the beginning of the 2000s. Perhaps it is no coincidence that art highlighting libraries’ and archives’ slow-paced rhythm was made when the world adopted a pace few of us could match.

Yet, what most of us cherish in libraries is not the passage of time, but the way we fill time with discoveries in spaces otherwise devoid of stimuli. This adventurous nature of the library research experience was captured in artist José Damasceno’s project Plot, commissioned by the Artangel in 2014. Plot occupied many spaces of the Holborn Library in London, from reading desks to the ceiling and theatre. The project was more than just installations: scattered around the whole building, it provided visitors with an incentive to explore the space, as if the library itself were a book. On their route, visitors encountered fictional characters, the joy of discovering connections between unrelated phenomena, and sometimes even boredom, in the form of a clay pile sitting at a library desk.

Plot, 2014, José Damasceno. Artangel. © Photograph: Marcus J Leith

José Damasceno’s focus was placed directly on the nature of the library, and the mental process of research that often happens within its walls. Even before entering the building, astute visitors might notice a white line connecting the library’s windows.

Finally, some artists work directly with books – something archives and libraries praise highly. Matej Kren combines piles of books and a system of infinity mirrors to visualise the incomprehensible amount of knowledge kept within libraries’ walls. Kren has created a series of installations in this manner: Passage, Omphalos, Book Cell, Gravity Mixer, and Idiom. The last was presented in Sao Paolo first, and later installed by the Prague Municipal Library. Kren’s structures imply the fundamental role books play in our society, utilising monumental forms to create this feeling: a dome, a column, a three-meter-tall cell. All his structures allow visitors to step or peer inside – to be surrounded by, and lost within, the information books contain.

Archive-specific art is rarer, since archives tend to be closed from the public. Nevertheless, exceptions to this rule are still plenty, and tend to approach art in a more intimate and precise manner. For example, Archive Kabinett (currently Archive Berlin), an organisation focused on archival practices of historically silenced groups, has hosted the project Bitter Things: Narratives and Memories of Transnational Families. Created by artists Malve Lippmann and Can Sungu from bi’bak project space, Bitter Things explores the means and complications of communication in transnational families. The exhibition space consists of sixteen phone cubicles, each containing a phone and a seemingly random object inside. Visitors may pick up the phone and listen to the story of a parent or child from a transnational family, which is somehow connected with the object present in the cubicle.

Bitter Things: Narratives and Memories of Transnational Families, 2018, Malve Lippmann and Can Sungu. © bi’bak. Photograph: Mathias Völzke

Art in libraries and archives showcases a wide range of concepts and feelings we seek in such places, from opportunities to find solitude and observe the slow passage of time, to immersing ourselves in information streams and surrendering to endless sequences of discovery. Art in libraries and archives brings community dimensions to these phenomena. It shows that, upon closer inspection, the strangers we meet in such spaces are often as similar to us as they might appear, though they might at first seem different in the anonymising rush of the world outside the library.

Archivorum will continue to explore the mutual benefits of artistic and archiving practices on each other, and on the communities that host them. The foundation will do so with both theoretical and practical inquiries, organising events and presenting art and research to the community.

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